There’s a famous Gospel incident about a young man who came to Jesus to ask an important question. The question had eternal consequences, but too often, we glean the wrong conclusions from Jesus’ answer.
The guy is often known as the “Rich, Young Ruler.” We call him that because it’s clear from the accounts that he had great wealth. About halfway through, Matthew’s version indicates that he was young. Luke’s version introduces him as a “certain ruler.” In this context, the term, ruler, implies that the young man was from the upper class.
A Clear Objective
The ruler’s objective was clear. He wanted some directive that would rubberstamp his good fortunes in the afterlife. If you conflate the gospel accounts, his questions could be restated as, “Good teacher, what good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?” Unfortunately, (not unlike a lot of us) he seemed to be under the impression that he could earn his way into Heaven.
As He often did, Jesus (rather than give him an immediate, direct answer) asked him a question. In this case it was, “Why do you call me good?” He then informed the young man that only God is good and that he should follow God’s commands. The man informed Jesus that he had always followed the commandments of the Lord. In other words, “I’m good. Is there anything else I need to do to seal the deal?”
Anyone who thinks they’re that good is a legend in his own mind. I remember thinking similar thoughts when I was a very young man myself. I figured that, if I was better than half the world’s population, God would admit me to His paradise when I crossed over to the next life. Like the ruler in the Gospel story, I assumed I could be good enough to cover all the necessary bases. Along the way, however, I was rudely introduced to the truth of the Gospel. There was no thing I could do that would be good enough to merit such a reward. I was a lousy sinner, and there was nothing I could do to erase my past—even if I could become perfect from that day forward (which I obviously could not do).
When Jesus told the young man he should sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Him, it proved to be a bit much for this particular ruler. We often look at this as a call to be divested of our belongings. The important part, however, was the call to follow Christ. The man’s riches just happened to be his stumbling block. I suspect we all have a few of those.
What the man learned that day was he couldn’t earn, buy, or claw his way to Heaven. He had to rely on Jesus to take him there. Like many of us, it was too much to take. It’s a whole lot more fun when we can pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.
[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and currently resides in Aldie, VA.]